Final Reflections on Kids & Gardening from Sara Lubbers

Sara-Lubbers-salsa-making  Next month, NKE will officially say goodbye to school counselor Sara Lubbers as she retires after 25 years at our school. Ms. Lubbers has been an integral part of the efforts at NKE to encourage outdoor/garden education. I sat down with her to get some thoughts on her passion for gardening and how that impacts our students.

How did you develop an interest in gardening?

My dad was raised in a family of eight during the Depression, when this was the way families were fed from June-October in Wisconsin. My grandmother always had a huge garden and that was how they ate—the farm to table movement really isn’t a new concept! I have a distinct memory of being four with my dad at my grandmother’s garden in Sheboygan. As a little kid I loved flowers and loved to find out about things that were growing. She grew lima beans—what is known as a butter bean—and I would pick and eat them. We always had a large garden growing up, and my dad, along with my grandmother inspired my interest in gardening. Growing up, I enjoyed weeding and harvesting, along with cooking and canning the harvest with my mom. Eating fresh food was a strong value for my family.

Sara-Lubbers-gardeningHow does that translate into your work here with kids?

Ever since I’ve been here, the Arboretum has been an area in transition. Various staff members through the years have taken interest in it and have wanted to develop the space to have native plants, but nothing specific for gardening like it is now really took shape. Depending on who was on staff, we had different revitalizations of the Arboretum, and I’ve always tried to be an active participant. As a school counselor, I think movement is important, being out in nature—kids can deal with stress and personal struggles by being outside. Nothing has pleased me more than the current revitalization of the Arboretum with active parents wanting to make this a priority four years ago. I jumped on the team and played an active role in making sure we could have garden beds. That was my focus, although I think the other areas are important, too. Kids being healthy and knowing where their food comes from is vital for this next generation.

Are there certain memories that have stuck with you?

Some of my great memories are of being involved with the planting of our first raised beds, teaching students about the process of planting and then helping students to make salsa in their classrooms. After our first year of having raised beds, we had an amazing tomato harvest. I just offered to help, and some classrooms took me up on the offer. Staff brought in blenders and food processors, and we made salsa and bruschetta. I will never forget going out in the Arboretum with a group of students from Andrea DeNure’s classroom. I took a group and we took some bowls and we gathered cherry tomatoes and small yellow tomatoes. They were like, “But this is yellow!” I said, “Yes, tomatoes come in many different colors.” Some were on the ground, and they asked if we could eat those, and what the straw was for …  just the learning lessons that come from questions in important with the process of understanding  what it takes to grow healthy food. Children are so earnest in wanting to know. It was so exciting to see how thrilled they were to taste the tomato and make something with it. This is project-based learning, and you want high engagement in whatever you are having kids learn. Participation and motivation is higher and it brings many of their skills together. It’s not just food; it’s about measuring, about math and reading … being able to speak about it and articulate what’s happening through the process.

Kids-seedsWhat impact has your outdoor education training had?

After our first year of moving forward with parent involvement and bigger long-range plans for the Arboretum, I and a couple other staff members took a weeklong summer class class for educators on gardening education with Community Groundworks here in Madison. That was a very important class for me because I was with like-minded people and we were at Troy Gardens, which has a very developed gardening program for children where they live. Kids can come at no cost and make something fresh or do art projects in the garden or just sit and be quiet and read. It is a very well-developed program, and I was able  to see that functioning. We were able to meet other people involved in this whole area of school gardens, and Madison has a very strong program in school gardens. One of the really fun things we did at the end of the week was take tours of these gardens and see not only what they grew but how they were doing it, how it was laid out and accessible for different developmental needs.

How has use of the Arboretum outdoor classroom changed in recent years?

Now staff are not so reluctant to use it, the interest in using the raised beds has increased and staff are using the various spaces for creative writing, breaks and more. The space in recent years has become attractive and a desirable place to be. With the recent spring weather, kids have been out there reading and writing. I really think most classrooms use it at some level. The hope is that it will continue being part of our Netherwood culture. Kids really want to know: How does a tomato grow? How do onions grow? You can pick beans and then eat them? Kids learn that way and get excited and tell their friends. It’s been wonderful—one of those extra perks—that I’ve been able to be in a school and combine my passion for gardening education. As a counselor I advocate for kids to deal with their problems and learn healthy ways to manage their struggles, and the Arboretum goes hand in hand with that.

Fun Theme Gardens to Try with Kids

Kids love digging in the dirt no matter what, but planting a garden can be even more fun and meaningful when you pick a theme and plan the garden together. Here are just a handful of the fun ideas you can try at home (you can find many more by searching online). Some of our classes will be trying these this spring! Remember, you don’t need a huge space to start a garden. Even a few containers on a patio can provide a fun and productive garden for your family.

3SistersGarden

A Three Sisters garden of corn, squash and beans. (Photo credit: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/hoop-house_gardener/conversations/topics/2350)

ABC Garden: Try to grow one plant for each letter of the alphabet and make your own letter markers to use in the garden.

International Garden: Choose a country or culture and make plant selections based on what is typically grown and eaten there.

Literacy Garden: Choose plants based on a favorite children’s book, such as “Growing Vegetable Soup,” “Peter Rabbit,” “The Ugly Vegetables” or the Winnie the Pooh books.

Pizza Garden: Grow all the ingredients for pizza such as tomatoes, peppers, oregano, basil, onions, garlic, and more.

Rainbow Garden: Try to plant at least one food for each color of the rainbow.

Salsa Garden: Grow all the ingredients to make your own salsa, such as tomatoes, cilantro, onions, peppers, and garlic.

Tea Garden: Grow herbs such as chamomile, mint, lemon verbena, lemon basil, monarda and more that can then be used to have your own tea party!

Three Sisters Garden: Plant corn, beans, and squash together—according to Iroquois legend, those are three inseparable sisters who grow and thrive only when they are together.

Try-It Garden: Choose foods that the kids have never heard of or tried before.

An Early Spring at NKE

As I write this, we’re just getting past two weeks of frigid temps and a fresh snowfall. But behind the scenes at school, our minds are focused on creating an early spring inside the classrooms at NKE. This year, for the first time, we have many classes who will be doing seed-starting projects using grow lights.

SeedlingGrowLightEverything from pumpkins and peppers to kohlrabi and cabbage can be easily started inside, some as early as March. The classes will nurture the seedlings until they are ready to be planted in our raised beds in the Arboretum. We also have new raised beds slated for construction first thing this spring in the outdoor education space between NKE and PVE.

This effort was initially inspired by a grant we received from the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation supporting gardening at school. Part of that grant went to buying seed-starting kits. As it turns out, we have so much interest we are dedicating money from the NKE Arboretum fund-raising to buying enough kits so all interested classes can participate in this fun, engaging project.

If you would like to support the NKE Arboretum projects, we always welcome help! We meet the first Mondays of the month at 5 p.m. at school, and you can make a monetary (tax-deductible) donation by going to www.nkearboretum.org and clicking on “How to Donate.” Keep an eye out for our first spring volunteer day announcement, too (follow us on Facebook to find out dates as they are planned).

The Amazing Impact of Learning Outside

NKEArb2015-SensoryWritingFor many people, it’s common sense that outdoor education—letting our children learn outside the confines of the classroom—is beneficial for learning. (When you have a wiggly little kindergartner like mine, that’s a no-brainer.) But there is a great body of research supporting this idea, too, and it shows benefits far beyond just science and environmental education. Here are some interesting facts from that research (thanks to the website classroominnature.weebly.com, which has a great compilation of research on this topic).

  • In one study it was found that when the outdoors was used as a learning environment, there was an increase of 73% “… in the understanding of mathematical concepts and content,” along with a 92% increase in mastery of math skills, and an 89% increase in enthusiasm for studying math.
  • A cross-cultural research study found that the single-most important factor in developing personal concern for the environment was positive experiences in the outdoors during childhood.
  • Outdoor education classrooms are important to supporting the multiple intelligences of all children and are exceptionally suited for meeting the needs of children with emotional and behavioral challenges.
    The bond between an adult and child, along with a child and the environment, is strengthened when an outdoor classroom is used. These bonds help support learning problem-solving skills.
  • Outdoor classroom experiences can lead to gains in social development. Children more easily move away from confrontation with peers in an outdoor environment and are less likely to display lack of cooperation, frustration, and annoyance. Even more, it was found that adults may actually relate differently to children when in an outdoor environment. This is because students are allowed to move more freely and make noise while outside, as compared to inside where they are expected to sit still and remain quiet.
  • While outdoors in nature, a child is more likely to encounter opportunities for decision-making that stimulate problem-solving and creative thinking because outdoor spaces are often more varied and less structured than indoor spaces and induce curiosity and the use of imagination.
  • Not only does the outdoor classroom provide children an opportunity to investigate the natural world, it allows for an environment to conduct group activities where the development of knowledge can occur. Specific skills and concepts are developed in this outdoor environment that connect with authentic, purposeful, and real-life objectives.

These are just a small sampling of the benefits that have been demonstrated. At NKE, we are fortunate to have a wonderful Nature Explore-certified Arboretum outdoor classroom, as well as the new outdoor learning area between NKE and PVE. If you would like to help support the development of either area, we welcome your input! To get involved, please contact Principal Chris Kluck. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation supporting the NKE Arboretum, you can find the donation form on our website here.

Our Big Compost Project

1-16-PullingLeavesWe are extraordinarily proud that in late fall 2015, we were able to restart our cafeteria composting program at NKE. As of mid-December, after only about two months, we had already composted 300 gallons of food scraps from the cafeteria. That is a huge quantity of waste being kept out of the landfill!

Basically at lunch we are collecting fruit, vegetables (the “green” items) and brown napkins. The leaves, pine needles and twigs from the arboretum serve as our “brown” materials and we throw that on top to cover the lunch scraps. The 4th grade service committee members have been taking out the food scraps to the compost bins that were built with NKE Arboretum fund-raising money next to the garage. Some 3rd graders helped rake the Arboretum and haul more leaves to the compost bins to refresh our “brown” supply.

Going forward we are still working to find more adults to take the compost out with the students. (There are many kids who can’t wait to take it out!) We can’t wait to show the kids the gorgeous “dirt” created from their lunchroom scraps.

If you’re interested in learning more about composting, you can check out this useful UW Extension resource.

 

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